Thunder Mugs and Freckle Makers

Today I am borrowing from ‘Dex’ Armstrong who articulately tells the Diesel Boat submariner’s story.


Thunder Mugs and Freckle Makers

by Bob ‘Dex’ Armstrong


At some point, I knew I would come face to face with the problem of revelation of deeply held smoke boat secrets. What I am about to lay before you will rank with the most sacred Masonic goodies and the secret signs of the Baltimore Orioles. In the past, what I am about to reveal was passed from the Grand Master of Smoke Boat-a-tarianism to an apprentice practitioner under a one-half inch thick lead blanket in the bottom of a mile-deep coal mine.

A submarine was a miniature municipality. The skipper was the mayor… Wardroom, the city council. The snipes handled the utilities. The COB was the sheriff… The rated men were the responsible citizens most of the time… Part of the time? Now and then? A few times a year? On Groundhog Day? Well anyway, at the absolute bottom of the social structure, you had the non-rated alley rats… The bums… Hobos… Homeless people… The nomadic tribe who moved from flash pad to flash pad in search of an uninterrupted night’s sleep.

In India, the human equivalent of non-rated people is called ‘the untouchables’… Many have leprosy. Hogan’s Alley on the Requin was a hybrid leper colony and primate cage. One of our multitude of extremely important responsibilities was care, maintenance and cleaning of our municipal sewer system. You eat… You poop. Cooks handled the former… We took care of the residual byproduct.

To fully appreciate the importance of this feature of our assigned duty, you must first understand the complex world of subsurface poop moving.

Everything that eventually found its way to one of our three sanitary tanks, made its way through a system of gravity drains. The scuttlebutt (water fountain for non-quals) … Cook’s and messcook’s sinks… Coffee urn… Air conditioning condensate drains… Head sinks… Urinals… Shower drains… And probably some stuff I forgot (Old age – CRS) … And finally, the heads (a.k.a. poopers, shitters, thrones, best-seat-in-the-house, the perch, commode, toilet… You got it, the next to the last stop for processed Spam. To us, they were the ‘thunder mugs and freckle makers.’

Once you got rated and qualified, you became a below decks watch stander. This honor took you out of the topside watch rotation and was an indication that the COB had found a small spark of intelligence that with his expert advice and guidance, could be fanned into the flame of Naval leadership. Or as in my case, he was short on below decks watch standers and rolled the dice on whether, given the opportunity, I could sink the ship or trigger a mutiny. I was given a clipboard – the vestment of below decks authority… And with the help of rig bills and intuitive awareness, I went forth to check bilges, wake up ungrateful bastards, render ‘on service’ fuel status reports, make one and two-way surface dump requests, and blow sanitaries.

There was an art to blowing sanitaries.

First, you rigged the tank for blowing. That consisted of following a rig bill and closing all master and backup drain lines valves in lines leading to the sanitary tank. If some clown was in the shower, you did not say,

“Hey champ, I’ll catch the rest of the line-up and be back to pull the drain screen and T-handle the deck drain closed.”

Why didn’t you say this? Because nine times out of ten you would forget and create either a 225lb. ships’ service air or external sea pressure fountain of high pressure decomposing doo-doo that would not increase your popularity with the shipmates in the affected compartment. Not that I was a flash in high school physics, but crap, like everything else in life, takes the path of least resistance. You leave a valve open and without fail, poop will make an unscheduled appearance.

You really knew you were in trouble when the lid on the coffee urn began a little dance signifying the arrival and percolation of partially dissolved head tissue and accompanying commodities… Maxwell House with Scotts’ Extra Fluffy just has to be consumed to really be fully appreciated.

If the 225lb. ships’ service air held and the pressure began to build slowly, all drains were secure and you could open the overboard discharge. During the next few minutes, ships’ service air overcame external sea pressure, forcing the contents of the sanitary tank out to sea. When the tank was nine-tenths clear, you secured the blow. In combat, an air bubble leaving the boat at 200 feet the size of an orange, would arrive at the surface the size of a VW bus.

So you secured the overboard discharge and vented the remaining air at whatever the external sea pressure was, back into the boat. This unique sensation can be replicated by feeding a buffalo hard-boiled eggs for a week then getting in a Chevy Nova with him and rolling the windows up. Someone once said we earned our sub pay based on inboard venting.

The heads were flushed by way of a rotating drum valve and a long handle. At the time we rode the old Tench class boats, they were approaching twenty years old (the equivalent of a 108-year-old chorus girl or 650 dog years). By that time, the drum valves had worn to a point where a little air slipped past them, making the water seal in the head bowl percolate like a fizzing coke. If you happened to be parked on one at the time, it would leave little bubble splatters all over the cheeks of your fanny… Hence the origin of the term ‘freckle makers’.

The sanitary system was a critical one and required a hell of a lot of attention. Most of the cast parts were brass and subject to verdigris corrosion (verdigris is that weird green stuff that grows on the base of 20 gauge shotgun shells). All the stuff was connected by copper line. A large part of my early submarine career was spent wire-brushing verdigris and Brasso-ing copper pipe. At the point you were between COBs, you painted as much copper pipe as you could get away with… We looked upon it as saving the tax paying public a small fortune in Brasso… Which also gave us more time to study etiquette and opera appreciation.

There is a very exclusive club in the submarine community. Very few submariners have been given the honor of admittance. Membership guarantees induction in the Deck Force Hall of Fame. The club is called,


When we went into the yards in ’62, the Chief came up to me and said,

“Dex, I’m thinking of a number between one and ten. If you can guess it correctly, you get a week with Gina Lollabrigida in any hotel you choose, with 20 cases of beer and a rental car thrown in.”

“Chief, is Gina buck nekkit?”

“No son, her toenails are painted. If they weren’t, she’d be buck nekkit.”

“No cheap ‘No-name’ beer?”

“Imported beer.”

“Gas in the car?”

“Full tank.”

“Okay Chief, I’ll take a shot at guessing the number…”

“Wait…There’s something I haven’t told you…”

“Yeh Chief, what?”

“If you don’t guess the number I’m thinking of, you dive number two sanitary.”

“Dive the shit tank?”

“You got it.”


“No, but you really came close.”

We all got close a lot but nobody ever got to spend a week with buck nekkit Gina… That poor woman must have spent a helluva lot of 1962 and ’63 walking around with no clothes on, waiting for some submarine deck ape to guess the right number. We just kept losing and the COB kept winning.

I got to visit the inside of number two and scrape a lot of unidentifiable stuff off the interior surfaces. Later, the skipper put a page in my service record announcing that I had visited the inside of number two poop tank and would not have to do it again in my naval career.

Some people see Rome… Some Paris… I’ve visited inside #2 and I sign autographs.


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